Vayigash: Jacob’s sad and surprising confession

Vayigash: Jacob’s sad and surprising confession

On Shabbat we read the finale of the Joseph story in Parashat Vayigash. The story culminates in a wonderful moment of family reconciliation which underscores why we must never forget the importance of family harmony (shalom bayit) in these relationships. And we must always remember the fragility of these relationships, too.

These are very important issues, and I know many rabbis will want to speak about them this Shabbat and I think they should.

However, I wish to share with you the religious significance of a very strange comment Jacob utters at the end of the parasha, a remark blurted out in such dramatic fashion it literally renders Pharaoh and Joseph speechless.

When Joseph’s family finally moves to Egypt and the brothers are introduced to Pharaoh, Joseph brings Jacob in for a private audience with Pharaoh. In an effort to be polite and show deference for Jacob’s years, Pharaoh asks Jacob his age, which in Egyptian culture is a sign of respect.

“The years of my life are 130″ Jacob replies. A simple answer to a simple question – Jacob could have stopped there. But Jacob continues: “Few and miserable have been the years of my life, nor do they compare to the years of my fathers (Abraham and Isaac).” What a bizarre thing to say – not just to a stranger, but a stranger who happens to be the most powerful person in the land! Not only does Jacob complain about his life, but he offers a second complaint – his horrible life hasn’t even lasted as long as that of his father and grandfather!

What is going on here? I sense that as Jacob’s life comes to a close, Pharaoh’s seemingly innocuous question strikes a raw nerve and reminds Jacob that as death approaches he will have to account for his life – what he has done and not done. While he may not have intended to offer this “confession” to Pharaoh, it may be that once he arrived in Egypt he began to think about his impending death and when the opportunity to comment on his life arose the words just flowed out of him.

Some Rabbinic commentators argue there is a great irony in Jacob’s statement. He has accumulated so much in his life – the blessing of his father, two wives, many children, great wealth, but at what price? Maybe his answer to Pharaoh acknowledges that he never imagined that achieving so much would require such a heavy price and exact such a heavy human tax. Jacob has paid a heavy price in all of his “accumulations” – he cut himself off from Esau, became estranged from Leah, and created the horrific sibling rivalry that resulted in Joseph’s exile to Egypt from Jacob and the family for many years.

Perhaps, as Jacob reviewed his life, his days were “few and miserable.” If so, his impulsive yet heartfelt words are a powerful reminder to all of us to think – not just of our “accumulations,” but what we may have sacrificed in order to achieve them.

In our process of “accumulating” we tend to forget that as we “accumulate” it is possible that we have to “sacrifice” other things. May we be wise enough to insure that we don’t lose those things that cannot be replaced by our “accumulations.”